Travel offers numerous opportunities to see the marvels of the world. Some are wondrous because of their intrinsic beauty. Some are wondrous because of their place in human history. Some, however, are on that list because of the reverence in which they are held. The Normandy American Military Cemetery and Memorial and the beaches of the D-Day landing are examples of the latter.
During our travels we have been fortunate to see a variety of our world’s treasures, including some that have left us with a tear in our eye. None, however, have compared with the feelings one gets when walking through the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur- Mer in Normandy.
High on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, rows of 9,000-plus crosses and Stars of David make this truly hallowed ground worthy of more respect than we can possibly give to those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Here on these 172 acres of consecrated American land in France, row after row of white granite headstones line up with military precision. No matter which direction you look the shapes flow as one into the distance. The markers and the immensity of knowing of the lives lost overwhelm you. Each headstone is oriented to the west, so these Americans forever face the nation they so selflessly served.
Below on Omaha Beach, little remains of the battle that saw 34,250 American soldiers come ashore in this turning point in the war so familiar to many with an interest in history or remembered as it was dramatized in the film The Longest Day.
One of the first views of the cemetery is of the semi-circular memorial with details of the D-Day landings. In its center is the massive bronze statue “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Behind it, is a memorial garden with the names of more than 1,500 Americans missing in action.
While some of the area is off-limits, other areas allow visitors to walk among the headstones. There the markers are no longer pieces of inanimate rock, but are individuals, men and women, with lives cut short by war. Each marker is engraved with a name, a unit, a state and date of death.
All, that is, except for the 307 who remain unknown. On those are these simple words: “Here Rests in Honored Glory A COMRADE IN ARMS Known But To God.” You can’t walk among the markers and see the names and not think of what might have been for them. One could have been a doctor who cures cancer. One could have been a business leader. One could have been….
At mid-afternoon, a crowd gathered near the statue and shortly after the National Anthem was played and then a gun salute. Both were followed by the mournful sound of Taps resounding over the cemetery. Visitors throughout stopped where they were, the veterans among the crowd saluting and others holding their hands over their hearts. As the sound of the last note echoed over the silent landscape, hearts were full of sadness at the loss yet filled with pride in the souls who we came to honor.
A short bus ride got us onto Omaha Beach. The beautiful day we had belied the chaos, the misery and the death that swept over this stretch of sand more than 74 years earlier.
A massive stone monolith stands near the beach while on the sand is Les Braves, a gathering of metal shapes called “The Wings of Hope,” “Rise, Freedom!” and “The Wings of Fraternity.” Along the beach, Americans collected sand to take home while French sunbathers watched from their towels closer to the water.
In his letter to all those involved in the invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, wrote: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
Standing among the markers reminds us all of that the price of freedom is high, but one brave Americans have paid for the world.